Posted on February 28, 2013
A visitor quizzed me recently about a group of my photos hanging in Mindport’s gallery. Quite a number of them most viewers might term “abstract,” in that they are images of patterns in seashore gravel, water, clouds, seaweed; fragmentary views of pedestrian objects whose identity is not always apparent from their close-up perspective. Our visitor told me he couldn’t tell what they were, and wanted me to explain it to him. Doing so was a challenge, akin to attempting to ascertain whether, when I see blue, another’s experience of that color is the same as mine.
Patterns attract my eye without any rational explanation. They give me a certain feeling, and that’s what the images are about. Either they give someone else a feeling or they don’t. Whether they give someone else the same feeling they give me, I don’t know. But most people seem to respond favorably to such abstractions. Eventually I told our guest that the pictures were simply of patterns I found appealing because they reminded me of images I see in dreams. He seemed satisfied with that explanation.
One of the interesting lessons learned from my years of experience attempting various art forms, including photography, ceramics, drawing/painting, and three-dimensional kinetic sculpture, is an awareness of the diversity of perception between different people viewing the same piece of work. I became increasingly conscious of this during a period when I was working with clay, mostly making ceramic hanging lamps, but also miscellaneous glazed clay vessels. One woman who was quite taken by my efforts, which she’d seen displayed at a local crafts fair, came by my studio for a visit. I gave her a tour during which she spotted a box of rejects, mostly things that I thought were ugly or which didn’t meet my standards in one way or another. You’d think she’d found a pot of gold! She asked if she could go through the stuff. As a starving potter, who was happy to glean every cent possible from his work, I told her, Certainly. She carried away a number of items and insisted on paying me $15, which at least covered the cost of the materials from which they were fabricated. Some artists wouldn’t get caught dead letting “inferior” work loose on the world, but I was living on a pittance at the time and wasn’t going to let pride stand in the way of my next meal.
That was my first objective demonstration of how radically taste varies from person to person, and it was a good one. It taught me not to worry excessively about people’s reactions to what I create, since whatever I do, some will like it and some won’t. Having grown up in a household where criticism was rampant, it was finally liberating to realize that as an artist I have a choice whether to take criticism to heart or to let it go the way of water on a duck’s back. In one sense criticism, preferably self-criticism, is a good thing when done in the correct spirit, because it keeps you on a path toward improving your work, or perhaps I should say it can hone your ability to express your feelings accurately as well as helping you clarify the direction your future efforts should take. But when fear of criticism prevents you from doing anything at all, it’s good to come to terms with such fear and not let it paralyze you.
It’s naturally pleasing when people love your work, but even that can be an inhibiting factor. I had a conversation once with a well-known local artist who was experiencing distress because he was tired of doing the sort of thing he’d been doing for years and wanted to take a new direction. He’d tried new forms of expression but a large number of his “fans” had objected so strenuously that he felt like making changes had become a painful uphill battle. This situation is especially difficult for artists who are attempting to earn a living with their creations. It’s easy to become a slave to the tastes of your public rather than feeling completely free to go your own way. The tragedy is that so many past artists who remained true to themselves died paupers, only to have their work become highly valued decades after their lives had ended.
One moral you might take from this story is that the happiest artist is the one who isn’t required to earn a living from his or her work. But I’ve heard it argued that the agonies of the market ultimately push artists toward excellence. . . which inspires the question, is the happiest artist necessarily the best artist? The question, if answerable at all, could be the subject of a whole essay in itself. It all depends on the personality of the artist, circumstances, the sort of work s/he’s doing, and how you define “best” and “happy.”
For awhile, at Mindport, several artists met weekly to discuss their work. The rule was that when viewing another’s creations, you didn’t label them “good,” “bad,” or with any other objective label. Rather, the instruction was to describe how a piece made you feel, what it reminded you of, or otherwise how you responded to it. We all came to agree after practicing these habits for awhile that receiving this sort of response to our artwork was much more helpful, not to speak of interesting, than having pat labels applied to it. Even receiving such comments as “I like this,” or “I dislike this,” were of little use to us. As an artist you’re attempting to communicate something, and the most gratifying response is hearing the details of how your work affects others, beyond simply kudos or condemnation.
It’s true that as a viewer of art in some circles you may justifiably fear that you’ll be considered naive or ignorant if you respond honestly to work in the way I’ve suggested. But I promise you that you won’t get a response like that at Mindport. We’re happy to discuss what we show, and will meet any questions you have with respect. But please, remember that we’re vulnerable too and like to be accorded similar consideration.